I love stories that come full circle. The way books like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi or series like Gilmore Girls can find a way to connect the end to the beginning in astounding ways is something I love. Sometimes, I even wish I could narrate my own life in ever going circles. In Etosha National Park (NP) in Namibia this feeling was especially strong. On our first safari we’d met a pregnant lioness and during the many safaris in between we’d managed to spot four of the big five. We’d seen lions, elephants, buffalos and rhinos. All that was missing was the other big cat: a leopard. During our final days of safarying, all we where hoping for, was to close the circle by spotting this elusive creature.
Arriving in Namibia, means arriving in the dessert. Namibia is the country with the least rainfall of any country in sub-Sahara Africa and we could feel it. I’ve never been anywhere this dry. The dryness is everywhere. On the ground, in the air and in the little vegetation you do see. Within a day my skin had started peeling everywhere. Dry flakes falling off from a simple lack of moisture and even though I am not the moisturizing kind of girl, in this country I shortly became one.
But whatever Namibia may lack in rainfall, it more than makes up in beauty. Starting with Etosha NP, we were in for three safaris in two days and the best part about it? We’d be travelling with the truck, which means room to walk around for the best vantage point of any animal we spot!
And so we drive into the park. We get there around three, giving us about thirty minutes to set up camp and get our buts into the park for some two hours of wildlife spotting before the park closes. No problem, by now, we are pro’s at setting up camp.
We get into the park and it is amazing. We see dry white stretches of land as far as the eye can see. Zebras and giraffes are crossing the road right in front of us. The setting sun elongating the shape of their shadows and providing those views you come to Africa for. We even manage to spot a tortoise, making the girl who has a ‘slight’ passion for them ecstatic and me happy just to witness her intense happiness. But although some of the zebras are pregnant (does that count as full circle? I think not) no leopard graces us with a show of its spots.
We get back to camp in time for sunset over the watering hole. We haven’t seen a bad sunset yet and this one is no exceptions. As the heat becomes bearable, we see flocks of birds flitting through the sky. Their small black shapes a contrast to the orange of the setting sun and the sound of their thousands of flapping wings louder than anything I could have ever imagined. I am sad we have to leave for dinner (who knew, me sad to go get food!), but as soon as we hear a male lion roaring we sprint back. Sadly, we don’t see any lions at the watering hole. Apparently their roar can travel distances up to 5 km and our views are by then blocked by a bunch of dry bushes.
I simply content myself with practising my new found skill: night time photography. The night skies here are amazing. Tiny pricks of light in a vastly big black void gaze serenely down on us. They cover the whole dome surrounding us, horizon to horizon in all directions. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen and so worth staying up beyond my bed time (which by now has become around 9 p.m. thanks to all the 4 a.m. mornings). I take picture after picture after picture. Cursing the wind that is making the trees move and turning the bottom of my pictures blurry, but at the same time loving it, because it provides a respite from the day time heat. I become calmer by the minute, as I have done throughout most of this trip. Nature quieting my sometimes singing nervous system and the constantly shifting landscapes quenching my curiosity. Some days, I feel like I could do this forever. Until the stars I am trying and failing to captures, have burned themselves out.
I do eventually get to my tent and before I know it, it’s time for the final two safaris. The sunrise is as beautiful as the sunset and gives us a view of those big African skies people my age remember from the Lion King. We pack up our tents in record time and encounter one of the few traffic jams of this trip: out of the campsite and into the park where it doesn’t take long before we spot our first wildlife. Three lions lounging around in the morning sun. As a jackal swiftly walks past, one of the lions gets up. She walks over to another lion, grazes her head, lies down a while and then moves on to the other lion. It seems like they are talking and discussing what to do and the impression is only enhanced when they all walk off together.
Could this spotting of lions mean I get my full circle? Will we now finally spot a leopard? I am not picky. In a tree, on the ground, from a distance. Any leopard will do. And so we keep on driving.
We see plenty of birds, more giraffes and more rhinos. This time with their horn intact which makes the viewing all the more incredible. This is what these animals are meant to look like! We spot a tiny wildebeest and soon after the day starts heating up and we see a few grazers taking to the shades, but not much else.
So we drive to the Etosha pan. Here, the white ground becomes whiter than white, the sky bluer than blue and the distances immeasurable. We contemplate the vast landscape and play around with the perspective, finally having found our “salt” pans. And then it gets to how so we head to a campsite before we depart on our final safari. Only slightly despairing over the fact that we still haven’t seen a leopard.
After the heat dies down and we’ve set up our tents, we head out on our final safari. I would be more sad if it hadn’t been so amazing and if I wasn’t so intent on fulfilling our wish of spotting the big five. And our final safari has a few more surprises in store for us. We see, another rhino, closer than the ones we saw this morning. We see an elephant. Or a statue of one. Or really an elephant covered in the white dust of the ground, pretending to be a statue. The moment he flicks the sand over his back, is the moment I realize I will always return to this continent. Places that can give you this, are places to keep in your heart. After that we manage to see a giraffe. We silently whisper for it to drink. And our silent egging on seems to help. In the most awkward way imaginable the giraffe bends down, bends its knees, bends further down and takes a few sips. We see another giraffe, walking away in the twilight.
Spotting a leopard at this point, would really make our trip come full circle, but this is reality. We keep frantically searching and by now my nervous system is starting to resemble the high pitch of the wind whistling outside the window. As I gaze over at the slowly elongating shade of our truck making just a small mark on a vast landscape, I know we will not spot a leopard.
Somewhere out there, just beyond the reach of our eyes, one of them is smiling to himself, because he knows.
We will have to come back here someday!